Strengthening the federal food assistance program is a smart public investment that will improve both public health and economic growth, Northwestern Professor Diane Schanzenbach testified Thursday before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.
During a public hearing on the pros and cons of restricting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- the former Food Stamp Program -- Schanzenbach cautioned against prohibiting the types of foods people can purchase with SNAP funds.
“Banning certain foods (like soft drinks) will raise the administrative burdens and the cost of the program, making it less efficient and less likely to change consumption,” said Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.
“By contrast, policy changes that strengthen the purchasing power of SNAP benefits and allow markets to function without undue interference are more likely to improve the dietary choice of recipients and reduce food insecurity.”
Schanzenbach, a professor of social policy and economics at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, called SNAP a “highly efficient and effective program” with low rates of error and fraud. The food assistance program lifted nearly 5 million children out of poverty in 2014.
SNAP’s success lies in its use of private sector businesses like grocery stores to provide efficient access to food, she said. Recipients can buy what they want and need. A 2016 United States Department of Agriculture report found SNAP and non-SNAP households had very similar spending patterns.
SNAP also has long-term benefits for children. Schanzbach’s research, the only long-term causal study on SNAP access, found that those with access to SNAP benefits as children were more likely to graduate from high school and grew up to be healthier. Women in particular were more economically self-sufficient as adults due to childhood access. “This is an investment in children,” Schanzenbach said.
Banning the purchase of soft drinks with SNAP funds wouldn’t decrease consumption because people would purchase them anyway, she said.
Snap benefits are modest, about $4.50 per person, per day. As a result, everyone supplements with their own money. “If soft drink purchases using SNAP benefits are banned, we’d except no consumption change; the family would continue to purchase the same basket of goods,” Schanzenbach said “They’d just pay for the soft drinks out of cash rather than SNAP benefits.”
This increases the administrative cost of the program to the USDA and retailers; it also heightens the stigma associated with using SNAP. “But it doesn’t have the benefit of inducing behavioral change,” she said “It’s all cost and no benefit.”
Instead, Schanzebach suggested increasing consumption of healthy foods by using market-based policies that reduce their relative price. The Healthy Incentives pilot in Massachusetts increased consumption of healthy foods by 25 percent; exploring ways to replicate or scale this program nationally could benefit SNAP recipients.
“By increasing resources available to purchase groceries, families are able to buy more nutritious food that they otherwise could not afford,” she said. “Additional restrictions will undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of program.”
In addition to Schanzenbach, witnesses testifying to the House Committee included Angela Rachidi, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Leslie Sarasin, chief executive office of the Food Marketing Institute, John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust, and Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.